On July 12, the U.N. released its annual global food security and nutrition report.
It paints a grim picture.
During the last four years, the number of people living with food insecurity and hunger has increased by 122 million. Today, 2.4 billion people lack consistent access to sufficient, nutritious, safe food.
The U.N. report encapsulates our greatest ambitions — to feed everyone on the planet, now and in the years to come. It also highlights an unmistakable truth: What we are currently doing doesn't work.
A popular narrative is that growing more food with fewer resources will solve global hunger and that biotechnology is a crucial tool. This is wrong on two counts. First, global hunger is not a production issue. We already produce more than enough food for everyone on the planet. Equally as important, the GMOs that dominate North American farming have not meaningfully increased yields or reduced hunger despite 30 years of industry self-aggrandizement.
The world produces more food, and more GMOs, than ever before. Still, millions are slipping into food insecurity.
Clearly, GMOs come up short in the fight against global hunger.
GMOs don't increase yields
A 2009 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) explored how well GMOs were performing against biotech promises. With 15 years of data to draw from, researchers found that "genetic engineering has actually done very little to increase the yields of food and feed crops" despite proponents' claims to the contrary.
To be clear, crop yields did increase during this time, but gains were mainly due to traditional cross-breeding and other agricultural practices, not genetic engineering.The negligible benefit due to GMOs (an estimated 4% yield increase) is a paltry reward when measured against the downsides of increased herbicide application, superweeds and superbugs and reduced biodiversity.
Recent scholarship supports the UCS's findings, as well as a 2016 New York Times analysis of biotechnology's performance in agriculture. According to the Times, "Yield is still driven by breeding plants to bring out desirable traits, as it has been for thousands of years."
GMOs don't feed the world
An in-depth report by the non-profit ETC. Group distinguishes two opposing food production systems. A near-monopoly of agrichemical corporations controls the industrial food chain, and the peasant food web consists of regional networks of small-scale producers.
While the industrial food chain utilizes its considerable might to shape policy decisions, it is a wildly inefficient production method. Industrial food production prioritizes well-traveled commodity crops, export markets, highly-processed foods and GMOs. It gobbles up the bulk of agriculture's natural resources while providing food to less than a third of the world's population.
Meanwhile, around 70% of people get their food outside the industrial system — and without GMOs. The peasant food web uses far less land, water and fuel than its industrialized counterpart while strengthening social systems. The peasant food web is most easily identifiable in the global south, where family- or women-led operations include farmers, livestock-keepers, pastoralists, hunters, gatherers, fishers and urban and peri-urban producers. However, it is also at work in the north. Food and seed exchanges, farmers' markets, urban farms and CSAs are all examples of the peasant food web at work.
GMOs don't address hunger's root causes
If production issues don't drive hunger, then what does? Diet-related diseases stem from a complex interplay of conflict, income inequality, global trade agreements and natural disasters. GMOs don't solve any of these issues — and can even exacerbate some of them.
Let's look at income inequality as one example. GMOs overwhelmingly benefit the corporations that make, patent and sell them. As such, their use exacerbates income inequality by transferring wealth to those who hold plenty of it already. The same corporations lobby governments to enact pro-biotech policies, including subsidies for specific crops or production methods. Farmers who follow establishment logic and buy patented GMO seeds must continue to purchase new seeds each year, as well as the accompanying costly fertilizers and pesticides. Adopting the treadmill of GMO production can push farmers into debt and erode social systems that depend on local trade and resource sharing.
Another example is the climate crisis. While growing food on a warming planet is top of mind for most farmers and many consumers, GMOs are a poor tool for increasingly common drought events.
"Drought is a complex challenge that doesn’t lend itself to single gene solutions," says GM Watch. No two droughts are the same. The severity and timing of a drought will determine its impact, and soil quality can make — or break — a plant's response. Furthermore, a crop's drought response involves many genes working together, whereas gene editing manipulates a couple of genes at a time. "These complications make it unlikely that any single approach or gene used to make a GM crop will be useful in all, or even most, types of drought."
If GMOs don't help feed the world, increase yield or address the climate crisis, then what are they good for? Amassing wealth. GMOs make tremendous amounts of money for the corporations that develop them.
In North America, we are 30 years into an experiment that was sold to us on the promise of a brighter future that has yet to begin.